From Novice to Expert

Tony Schwartz over at Harvard Business Review gets it exactly right: the key to excellence is practice.  Specifically, deliberate practice.  Building on the work of Anders Ericsson, Schwartz argues that whatever role our genetic inheritance plays, it is the type of effort we put into an endeavor that determines how good we become:

Like everyone who studies performance, I’m indebted to the extraordinary Anders Ericsson, arguably the world’s leading researcher into high performance. For more than two decades, Ericsson has been making the case that it’s not inherited talent which determines how good we become at something, but rather how hard we’re willing to work — something he calls “deliberate practice.” Numerous researchers now agree that 10,000 hours of such practice as the minimum necessary to achieve expertise in any complex domain.

Ericsson’s research on human performance and what it takes to move from novice to expert has informed our own research here at MetaMetrics and has recently been popularized by writers like Geoffrey Colvin and Malcom Gladwell.  As Malbert Smith has written in ‘Education Reform: Making this the ‘Best of Times’:

Research suggests that a novice develops into an expert through an intricate process that includes the following components (Glaser, 1996; Kellogg, 2006; Shea & Paull, 1996; Wagner & Stanovich, 1996):

targeted practice in which one is engaged in developmentally appropriate activities;

real-time corrective feedback that is based on one’s performance;

intensive practice on a daily basis that provides results that monitor current ability;

distributed practice that provides appropriate activities over a long period of time (i.e., 5-10 years, which allows for monitoring growth toward expert performance; and

self-directed practice for those times when a coach, mentor, or teacher is not available.

Like most other human activities, expertise in mathematics and reading are not genetic gifts.  Rather expertise is obtained through deliberate, intensive, targeted practice that occurs over a wide span of years.  Frameworks, like the Lexile Framework for Reading and the Quantile Framework for Mathematics, allow educators to capitalize on these well-grounded principles by targeting students at the appropriate level – in both mathematics and reading.  Free utilities, like Lexile Find a Book and the Quantile Teacher Assistant simplify the process by allowing educators (and parents) to match students to free resources at a targeted level. 

Ericsson’s research has added much to our understanding of the key principles in acquiring expertise and, thanks to a host of popular writers, is exerting increasing influence across a wide variety of spheres.  That’s good news.  Students stand to benefit immensely as more of these principles are put into practice in classrooms across the country.

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